Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The San Diego Chargers check in at No. 16.
In a move unpopular with many fans, team president Dean Spanos decided to keep coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith after the Chargers finished 8–8 and out of the playoffs for the second straight year. Now it’s time for Turner and Smith to fire up the Chargers — or get fired.
Smith was more active than usual in free agency. Forced to replace star wide receiver Vincent Jackson, he signed Robert Meachem and Eddie Royal in a flurry of deals that should bolster the offense. Smith then used the draft to improve a defense that was the worst in the NFL on third down. With the first three picks, he took outside linebacker Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, defensive end Kendall Reyes of Connecticut and safety Brandon Taylor of LSU.
The Chargers no longer have the luxury of playing in one of the weakest divisions in football. Oakland continues to improve. The Chiefs regain the services of standout tailback Jamaal Charles. And the Broncos, the defending division champs, now have Peyton Manning running the show.
No one will be as eager to bounce back as Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, who has to hope that his mysterious struggles are behind him. Rivers committed a stunning number of turnovers, including the memorable fumbled snap at Kansas City. Rivers finished with 20 interceptions and five lost fumbles. Many fans wondered if he was hurt after taking a few hard shots to the chest early in the season. But his name never appeared on the injury report, and he insisted he was healthy.
The offensive line took a hit when four-time Pro Bowler Kris Dielman, a fixture at left guard, was forced to retire after a concussion. Dielman was as tough and nasty as they come, leaving the Chargers to replace an attitude as well as a player. Tyronne Green will give it a shot. The Chargers re-signed center Nick Hardwick and left tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither helped stabilize the left side of the line during the final five games of the 2011 season after being signed off waivers following a neck injury to Marcus McNeill, a 2006 second-round pick who was released in the offseason. Hardwick has been a starter since his rookie season of 2004. He made it known that he wanted to remain in San Diego and did not test the free agency market.
The team allowed Jackson to leave for Tampa Bay even though he caught 60 passes for a team-high 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns. San Diego felt it would be unable to address other needs if it they gave Jackson a deal in the range of the $55 million he signed with the Bucs. Meachem will start opposite injury-prone Malcom Floyd, while Royal — who often burned the Chargers during his time with Denver — will battle exciting second-year pro Vincent Brown for the No. 3 receiving spot.
Running back Ryan Mathews had a solid second NFL season, showing a nice burst en route to 1,091 yards and a spot in the Pro Bowl. Mathews will have a new escort this season, as Le’Ron McClain has replaced Mike Tolbert at fullback.
Tight end Antonio Gates returned to health after missing time early in the season with painful plantar fasciitis. He continues to draw double-teams and led the Chargers with 64 catches for 778 yards and seven scores.
If the Chargers can stay relatively healthy and avoid the turnover issues that plagued them last season, the offense has the ability to be among the best in the league.
A glaring lack of impact players on defense hurt the Chargers to the point that they led the NFL by allowing opponents to convert 49.2 percent on third downs. The scapegoat was defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, who was fired shortly after the 2011 season. He was replaced by linebackers coach John Pagano, brother of new Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano. John Pagano was beaming during the draft as the front office selected Ingram, Reyes and Taylor with the first three picks, giving him a player on each level of the defense. All three rookies are expected to provide an immediate impact, particularly in third down packages.
Reyes will be an upgrade in the defensive line rotation. Ingram will be inserted into the rotation at outside linebacker, joining Shaun Phillips, Antwan Barnes, and the newly acquired Jarret Johnson. A starter for the Ravens for the past five years, Johnson is strong against the run. Barnes had 11 sacks last season, while Phillips, who missed four games at midseason, had only 3.5. Larry English hasn’t lived up to his billing as a first-round pick out of Northern Illinois in 2009, largely because of foot injuries. He has only seven sacks in three NFL seasons.
Taylor will compete with Atari Bigby for the starting job at strong safety. The Chargers hope Taylor can give them the kind of hard-hitting play they haven’t had at strong safety since Rodney Harrison left for New England 10 years ago.
Free safety Eric Weddle was one of the bright spots on a disappointing defense. The veteran from Utah was named first-team All-Pro after recording 66 tackles and tying for the NFL lead with seven interceptions. He’s also developed into a leader in the locker room.
Nate Kaeding, the most accurate kicker in NFL history coming into the 2011 season, broke his leg on the season’s opening kickoff — which was returned for a touchdown by Minnesota’s Percy Harvin — and missed the rest of the year. Nick Novak stepped in and converted 27-of-34 attempts, but Kaeding is expected to get his job back. Mike Scifres continues to boom punts; he ranked sixth in the NFL with a 47.5-yard average. Royal will step in and take over punt returning duties. Richard Goodman, a reserve wide receiver, is in the mix to be the primary kickoff return specialist.
Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC West
Interestingly enough, the Chargers had their best start under Turner last season — they were 4–1 after five games — yet still missed the playoffs for the second straight year. They were undone by a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season. They did, however, close with a 4–1 run, which gives them some confidence heading into 2012.
Spanos has made it clear that Turner and Smith have to win in order to save their jobs. He didn’t specifically mention a deep playoff run, but it was implied.
The offense, a team strength for so many years, must become more efficient after a down year. That starts with Rivers at quarterback, but the new additions to the receiving corps will be under the microscope as well. The team addressed some glaring needs on defense in the draft. If the rookies make an immediate impact and Pagano, the new defensive coordinator, can solve the third down woes, the Chargers should be in the hunt for the AFC West title.
Related: 2012 San Diego Chargers Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
The Chargers were among the hardest hit emotionally when former linebacker Junior Seau died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in May. “We all lost a friend today,” team president Dean Spanos said. “This is just such a tragic loss. One of the worst things I could ever imagine.” The Chargers held a celebration of life service on May 11 at Qualcomm Stadium, where Seau starred for his first 13 NFL seasons.
Look Who’s Coming to Town
The Chargers will see several high-profile former teammates and coaches thanks to their matchup with the NFC South this season. In home games, they’ll face running back Michael Turner of the Falcons, and running back Mike Tolbert and former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera of the Panthers. In road games, they’ll face quarterback Drew Brees of the Saints and Vincent Jackson of the Buccaneers.
Eddie Royal has a chance to make highlights with the Chargers rather than against them. While with Denver in 2009, Royal returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in a 34–23 Monday night victory at San Diego. In September 2008, after referee Ed Hochuli’s infamous blown call in Denver, Royal caught a fourth down touchdown pass from Jay Cutler and then ran the same route to catch the winning two-point conversion.
Party In The Parking Lot
There were plenty of emotional moments when left guard Kris Dielman announced his retirement in the offseason due to a concussion. The mood lightened somewhat when Dielman was asked if he’s going to still be around. “I’m excited to tailgate,” he said.
Whitehurst is back Charlie Whitehurst is back as Philip Rivers’ backup after a two-year sojourn to Seattle in which he threw his first NFL pass. Whitehurst was San Diego’s third-string quarterback behind Rivers and Billy Volek from 2006-09 and never attempted a pass in the regular season. After being traded to Seattle, he played in nine games in two seasons, throwing for 805 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions. He helped get the Seahawks into the playoffs in 2010. Hours after signing Whitehurst, the Chargers released Volek.
It might take San Diego State fans a while to warm up to rookie tight end Ladarius Green. In his final game at Louisiana-Lafayette, he caught five passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in a 32–30 victory over the Aztecs in the New Orleans Bowl.
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17:Tennessee Titans
No. 16:San Diego Chargers
No. 15: Mon., Aug. 13
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Related: 2012 San Diego Chargrs Schedule Analysis